The Daily Dirt

We Need A Hero. And We Have One: Robby Astrove

Robbie2In April at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis Honored One of the Good Food Community’s Most Active Cross-Pollinators with not one but two “DeKalb Community Hero” awards.

Robby Astrove was presented with the Environmental Change Award, which recognizes an individual or organization that works tirelessly to preserve, protect, and raise awareness about the environment.

Astrove also received the The Inspiration Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements in the parks and greenspace field.  The goal of the award is to recognize outstanding leaders who inspire others through their actions to expand and improve public parks and greenspaces, and who work to raise awareness about critical relevant issues.

DeKalb County couldn’t have picked a better recipient of these awards. Take one of his great tours at Arabia Mountain, and you’ll not only learn about wildflowers, birds, and trees, you’ll also share in his deep, deep appreciation for nature’s infinite wonders.

As you are about to see, Robby is a restless, devoted, and passionate source of inspiration and education.

Georgia Organics: Few people are as involved with as many organizations as you. What type of work, either paid or volunteer, are you attracted to, and why?

My roots are in conservation ecology, ecosystems and landforms, and I’m crazy about native plants. I’m crazy about helping people too.  I’ve worked in plant nurseries during college, sold roses in high school, and shoveled many loads of mulch at home during middle and high school for my mom.  I give her credit for my love of mulch.  What was once viewed as pain-in-the-ass work and pretty embarrassing when friends came over because they had to help mulch too is now a cornerstone of my professional work.  I geek out for good aged mulch now….

As an experiential environmental educator I invest a lot in children and audiences K-death; it’s pretty much everybody and can cover a lot of ground in the environmental field. I give people tools, information, and opportunities to actively participate in healing the planet and themselves.  I do this on behalf of wetlands, wilderness, and currently restoring a vibrant urban ecology and restoring a love of nature.  By virtue, I’m attracted to anything involving transformative learning, social responsiblity, and projects that better society and the city.  That really opens the door to work with a lot of great organizations and people.

Then enter the food movement in 2008. I seriously wanted in but there was one serious conflict to resolve.  Gardeners are sun seekers—I as a tree guy and arborist (at the time I was working for Trees Atlanta) am a shade maker.  These are strongly opposed but after much thought I came up with fruit trees as a way to continue to work with trees while at the same time plant roots in the food movement.  Surprisingly, nobody was really doing much with orchards, fruit trees, etc.  I’m attracted to groups like Trees Atlanta that are restoring our city’s tree canopy because trees are the answer to so many environmental, social, and economic problems. I’m attracted to Concrete Jungle, whose volunteers feed the homeless and hungry with underutilized public produce that would otherwise go to waste.   It just makes sense to do this and connect the dots of abundance, hunger, and justice.  I’m attracted to the East Atlanta Farmers Market, which partners with Wholesome Wave Georgia, because its win-win for everybody and incentivizes a lifestyle change.  It’s also my community and I’m attracted to improving where I live.

I also dig the guerilla/punk rock elements of the food movement like seed bombing and guerilla fruit tree planting, which is fun and meaningful as a food justice and food security action.  Farmers understand freedom and I’m attracted to that too.

But the attraction to the food movement is different and unique to anything I’m involved with. I’m attracted to urban agriculture and the larger food movement because I’m in love with the culture of generosity, an amazing byproduct of abundance which is at the heart of this work. Everybody is so giving and generous and has something to share and give all the time—ideas, seeds, materials, a solution, food, a meal, a hug. It’s this amazing culture of generosity is what I’m most moved by. It inspires me to give more each time. Strongly associated, and it’s a close second place, I’m attracted to the amazing folks doing this work. The highest compliment I give Georgia Organics’ conference (in addition to being the best conference I attend all year) is it has the best conference attendees.  Farmer/foodie folks rock! That says a lot about our food community, its players, and our work plowing forward for a more sustainable food future.  Plus, farmers/foodie folks have the best parties…and the attraction is literal as farmers got mad game on the sexy, just sayin’.

So, when you add up the organizations that do environmental conservation, native plant restoration, agriculture, and other organizations that do work in my realm of forestry and arboriculture, environmental education, and natural resources, it’s a long list of folks I work with and support. Pretty much the who’s who of Atlanta’s environmental community and some more directed to specific social services like HIV/AIDS orgs and animal welfare groups.

The organization I’ve supported and participated with the longest is the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia.  The newest group I volunteer for is the Lifeline Animal Project.  My wife and I are volunteer dog walkers for the dogs in the shelters.  It’s fun, and gets us out.  Ok, so you asked and here’s the list of orgs I’m active with now or in the last year:

Georgia Organics

Atlanta Local Food Initiative

APS Farm to School Coalition

Concrete Jungle

East Atlanta Village Farmers Market

East Atlanta Community Association

Kirkwood Neighborhood Organization

Friends of Brownwood Park

Friends of Washington Park

Truly Living Well

Wylde Center

Atlanta Metro Food and Farm Network

Farmer D Organics

USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program

Monarchs Across Georgia

Atlanta Audubon Society

National Wildlife Federation

West Atlanta Watershed Alliance

South River Watershed Alliance

Park Pride

Trees Atlanta

The BeltLine Partnership

The Nature Conservancy

Georgia Conservancy

Grant Park Conservancy

Arabia Alliance

The Flat Rock Archive

DeKalb County Natural Resources

DeKalb County Parks and Recreation

Keep DeKalb Beautiful

AID Atlanta

Camp HI-FIVE at Camp Twin Lakes

Camp Soulshine

The AWARE Center

Ranger Robbie leading a tour of Arabia Mountain.

Ranger Robbie leading a tour of Arabia Mountain.

GO: What’s the most rewarding part of your job at Arabia Mountain?

As the Park Ranger, hiking for a living is pretty sweet, and the job keeps me in shape.  But seriously, it’s leading people up Arabia Mountain, a place most people don’t even know about.  I’ve discovered for many visitors it’s their first time, so perhaps a great reward for me is seeing a life-changing moment unfold before my eyes when we reach the top. Most are surprised of the amazing view and how it’s only 25 minutes from downtown. Some are really blown away by the gangbusters of wildflowers and the rawness of the Preserve—it’s 2,500 acres, and you can see for miles up top. Folks sometimes have a spiritual moment and I’m there to support and feed that energy. When I get to the top with hikers I usually shut up and let the mountain do the teaching for me. I never get bored even though I walk the same trails daily. It’s like the first time every time.

GO: How do you think the local food movement could better connect with other organizations in the state that stress community involvement and the environment?

Some praise first.  I love how the food movement is leveraging language and facts to talk about food in economic terms.  One of the best supporting research papers all so familiar to GO is the UGA study that explains how changes in spending, principally buying locally and Georgia grown supports our local/statewide economy and returns the investment to us.   I’ve jumped on the bandwagon too as I’ve noticed myself saying things like urban agriculture IS economic redevelopment more and more. It’s a powerful statement.  This is important because depending on your audience the food story can be tailored to utilize language that makes the connection better and more compelling.

So, to better connect to others we gotta take it to them and talk like them.  I would love to see food folks have more presence with groups like the American Institute of Architects, the green building community, and economic redevelopment groups and others like the Chamber of Commerce, for example.  Having food as a planning element rather than an afterthought could mean better food projects.  I also think neighborhood associations and homeowners associations deserve more consideration on the local level. Reaching folks at home and at work through their business might be another avenue to explore. Lastly, organizations and folks that work in the areas of historic preservation, parks and green space, and land trusts that could lead to mutually beneficial outcomes.

GO: Your deep involvement with so many organizations keeps you in touch with lots of dedicated people on the frontlines of progress. It also means you interact with a lot of people who aren’t involved or passionate about their community or the environment. How do you go about winning over the less involved folks?

Winning them over starts with an experience; a hands-on multi-sensory experience where they can try something, do something new, be somewhere they normally wouldn’t. And support them as much as possible—make it fun and enjoyable so they will do it again, and give them tools for their own independent practice.  I’m an educator so I’ve tailored my career and much of my volunteer activity to facilitate or lead activities that provide experiences and create memories. Leading hikes at Arabia Mountain could awaken someone’s sprit to care for the planet by seeing something truly beautiful and inspiring.  Eating a carrot fresh out of the soil will teach folks how simple and sweet a carrot really is when grown in Georgia.  Participating with Concrete Jungle and learning how to forage could expose folks to how much food is really around us and how much of it goes to waste.  Learning how to properly plant fruit trees is a life skill that can be shared with families and made into a tradition like when a new child is born.  Going to a chef demo and learning how easy it is to prepare food that’s good for you could lead to more market shoppers and healthy eating.

I teach, I facilitate experiences, and I offer a way of being that promotes a culture of stewardship for the planet.

GO: Hawks or owls, and why? 

This is almost as hard as what’s your favorite tree…After much thought and appreciating both…it’s owl.   Both are awesome but I have more meaningful memories about the owls regarding a place, time, or the person I was with.  A story:  When I was in grad school and I was biking in the University Arboretum, a huge barred owl swooped down right in front of me; pretty sure it was dive bombing me. I jumped off my bike and hit the deck as it landed on an arching branch above.  That was my cue to stop, freeze, and be amazed as we stared at each other. I’ll never forget.  This past winter solstice I was hiking down Arabia Mountain after watching a fantastic sunset.  On the way down I heard a call and was determined to find it. I explained to the hikers with me to look up at every large tree, especially the snags (the dead ones) and look for a ‘bowling ball silhouette in the tree.’  Then I said, “Look!!!”  It was a HUGE great horned owl.  It was far but we could make out the tufted ears, and it was huge silhouette, kinda like a big-ass bowling ball in the top of the tree.  So special on the Solstice. I’ll have a hard time forgetting that experience too.   Do you have an awesome memory like this placed in nature?

GO: Lichens or tomatoes, and why?

Lichens! Most folks who explain lichens geek out on how they are fascinating ancient life forms, indicate air quality, and a host of other mostly nerdy superlatives regarding science/biology.  There’s so much we don’t know about lichens and they are still being discovered all over the world. But I like to talk about lichens in terms of relating to people, anthropomorphize them, and examine them as an example of being in healthy relationship. Lichens provide us with a great life lesson that speaks to cooperation and synergy.  They are comprised of two life forms and create an inspiring partnership that can be reflected on. One cooks, the other provides a home. Part algae (the “chef” c/o photosynthesis) and part fungi (the “home builder” and structural provider), lichen demonstrate the benefit of working together. I like that very much.

Georgia is widely considered to be overlooked when it comes to its urban agriculture. In what other ways do you think the state is overlooked?

Many of us don’t realize that Georgia has one of the most wild and natural coastlines on the east coast.  Much of the landscape is protected barrier islands, marsh, hammocks, and estuaries, and it’s all so beautiful.  Totally worth exploring via canoe or camping trip.  And the rest of the state is notable too, with so many habitats, eco zones, and physiographic diversity. We got a lot of biological diversity in our state.  Equally appreciated and perhaps overlooked as an Atlanta thing is Atlanta’s cultural diversity. It’s incredible!  Who’s ever considered Atlanta as a true American melting pot and epicenter for immigrants and international culture? DeKalb’s last census documented over 100 separate and unique languages in use in the county.  That’s awesome and should be celebrated, and is why I love the mission behind the Global Growers Network in Clarkston.

So many of my friends boo-hoo’ed my move to Atlanta, so perhaps the city itself is overlooked.  I go to bat for this city all the time and praise its dirty-dirty ways. For one,  ATL is a city with something for everyone, and to my delight we live in an awesome forest with big ass trees!  I’m in love with the forest and our lil’ garden city under the canopy.  I dig Atlanta’s identity, our community, and where cultural creative energy is headed.  Some folks are clueless why I like here so much—phat culture, a busy arts community, great climate, inspiring civil rights history, lots of funky underground stuff and yes, urban agriculture and all things local food movement. Southern living is cheap and I feel this ground swell of positive energy in the city right now doing meaningful and revolutionary things. Give it up for the A!

To foster better progress in Georgia, which communities do you think need to be more united than they currently are, and why?

In the food realm including urban agriculture of course, I believe there is much work and partnerships to create with our religious leaders and faith communities.    I see so many places of worship with huge grass fields and all I want to do is plant orchards and food forests and tomatoes….  Imagine the influence a Pastor or Rabbi can have when they champion eating local, planetary stewardship, and promoting growing at home or at the Church.  Figs are a biblical fruit and would be a great choice like quince and pomegranate for church grounds.  I’ll worship that!   What would Jesus eat?


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